Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Company

Decision Date19 July 2006
Docket NumberNo. D045579.,No. D045154.,D045154.,D045579.
Citation46 Cal.Rptr.3d 147,141 Cal.App.4th 525
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesBenetta BUELL-WILSON et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY et al., Defendants and Appellants.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., William E. Thomson, Eileen M. Ahern, Los Angeles, Theodore B. Olson and Paul DeCamp, for Defendants and Appellants.

Kirkland & Ellis, C. Robert Boldt, Los Angeles, Christopher Landau, Erin Morrow; National Chamber Litigation Center, Inc., Robin S. Conrad and Amar D. Sarwal, for The Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America; Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw and Donald M. Falk, Palo Alto, for The Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc.; O'Melveny & Myers, Brian D. Boyle, Matthew M. Shors, Charles E. Borden and Arthur W.S. Duff, for The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Appellants.

Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, Jerome B. Falk, Jr., Steven L. Mayer, Keith D. Kessler, San Francisco; Hancock, Rothert & Bunshoft, Paul D. Nelson, Paul J. Killion, Jacqueline G. Elliopulos, San Francisco, Leslie Kurshan, Michael J. Dickman, San Francisco; Schoville & Arnell, Dennis A. Schoville, Louis G. Arnell, San Diego, and James S. Iagmin, for Plaintiffs and Respondents.


Benetta Buell-Wilson (Mrs. Wilson) brought this action against Ford Motor Company (Ford) and Drew Ford (Drew)1 as a result of the rollover and roof crush of her Ford Explorer (Explorer) that left her a paraplegic. Mrs. Wilson's husband Barry Wilson (Mr. Wilson) brought a claim for loss of consortium against Ford and Drew. A jury found in favor of Mrs. Wilson and Mr. Wilson (together the Wilsons), finding that (1) the Explorer was defectively unstable; (2) the Explorer was not crashworthy due to a defect in the roof; (3) Drew failed to warn the Wilsons that the Explorer was defectively unstable; and (4) Ford and Drew failed to warn the Wilsons of the danger posed by the defect in the roof. The jury awarded Mrs. Wilson $109,606,004 in damages for her injuries, consisting of $4,606,004 in economic damages and $105 million in noneconomic damages, and awarded Mr. Wilson $13 million for his loss of consortium. The jury also found that Ford acted with "oppression, fraud or malice" and awarded the Wilsons $246 million in punitive damages. The court later reduced Mrs. Wilson's total compensatory damages award to $70 million, resulting in an award of $4,606,004 in economic damages and $65,393,996 in noneconomic damages. The court reduced Mr. Wilson's loss of consortium damages to $5 million. The court reduced the punitive damages award to $75 million, a one-to-one ratio to the Wilsons' total reduced award of compensatory damages.

On appeal Ford asserts (1) it is entitled to a new trial because the court erroneously admitted evidence about stability problems with a predecessor vehicle, the Ford Bronco II (Bronco II), and erroneously excluded evidence of the Explorer's "real-world" safety record and comparative data; (2) the noneconomic portion of the compensatory damages award was excessive and an unconstitutional violation of Ford's due process rights; (3) punitive damages were improperly awarded because (a) at most the Wilsons proved that "reasonable people could disagree regarding" the design decisions Ford made, and (b) California's punitive damages law is unconstitutionally vague as applied; and (4) the punitive damages award was excessive and the product of improper considerations. We granted permission to The Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America (the Chamber), The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) and The Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc. (PLAC) to file amicus curiae briefs to support Ford's contentions on appeal.2

We hold that (1) the award of noneconomic damages to Mrs. Wilson, as reduced by the trial court, is excessive under California law, is the product of "passion or prejudice," and must be reduced to $18 million; (2) the reduced award for loss of consortium in the amount of $5 million is reasonable and is affirmed; and (3) the award of punitive damages is excessive, violates federal due process limitations, and must be reduced to $55 million, a ratio of approximately two to one to the total compensatory damage award, after our reduction, of $27,606,004 ($4,606,004 in economic damages + $18 million in noneconomic damages + $5 million for loss of consortium). We issue a remittitur conditioning affirmance of the judgment on the Wilsons' agreement to those reductions. Thus, if the Wilsons accept the remittitur, the total judgment will be reduced to $82,606,004 ($4,606,004 in economic damages + $18 million in noneconomic damages + $5 million in loss of consortium + $55 million in punitive damages). We reject the remainder of the arguments made by Ford and amici curiae.3

A. The Accident

At around 5:00 p.m. on January 19, 2002, Mrs. Wilson, a married 46-year-old graduate student and mother of two, was driving her 1997 four-door Explorer within the speed limit on Interstate 8 near Alpine, California. The road was dry and sloped slightly downhill.

Suddenly, Mrs. Wilson saw what appeared to be a metal object break loose from a motor home in front of her and bounce directly toward her windshield. As she swerved to avoid the object, the wheels on the passenger side lifted from the road, and the Explorer went out of control. The vehicle fishtailed multiple times across lanes and rolled four and a half times, coming to rest on its roof on the road's shoulder. Ford conceded at trial that Mrs. Wilson bore no fault for the accident.

As the Explorer rolled, the roof's pillars and rails crumpled, and the roof crushed down more than 10 inches, causing severe injuries to Mrs. Wilson. Inside the vehicle, she hung upside down from her seatbelt, in "crushing . . . unbelievable pain," gasping for breath and feeling as if her life were fading away. Motorists stopped to assist and struggled to flip the vehicle, and rescue crews cut the roof open to remove her. An ambulance took her from the scene to a life flight helicopter, which flew her to Sharp Memorial Hospital (Sharp) trauma center.

B. Mrs. Wilson's Injuries
1. Physical injuries

The compressive forces from the collapsing roof fractured and severed Mrs. Wilson's spine at the T12 level, where the thoracic and lumbar regions meet. She will never recover sensation or function below the level of that injury. She also suffered facial injuries, fractured ribs, a cut spleen that caused internal bleeding, a fractured leg and torn PCL and ACL ligaments in both knees, causing bilateral knee dislocations.

In addition to the vertebral fractures, the spinal sac was damaged, causing leaking of cerebral spinal fluid, and portions of the spinal cord and nerve root were pulverized. Doctors inserted metal screws and rods into her back to stabilize her upper body. After almost two weeks, she was transferred to Sharp's rehabilitation center, where she spent another two and a half months.

Mrs. Wilson's resulting paraplegia ended her active life and forced her to painfully relearn basic aspects of daily living, some of which she will never regain. She lives in severe and constant pain that will increase over time. Her accident left her with no sensation from the waist down except "phantom pain" — a constant burning sensation below her ribs. Above her waist, she suffers constant pain, feels painful pressure on her ribs from the rods in her back, and has intermittent spasms of stabbing pain.

Medication can provide temporary pain relief, but the strong medication needed has serious side effects. It causes her to lose alertness, which makes it impossible to drive. It interferes with her ability to communicate socially. It makes her unsteady in her wheelchair. She also runs the risk of becoming addicted to the medication. There is a constant conflict between efforts to reduce her pain and the debilitating side effects of the medicine itself.

The spinal injury caused a total loss of bladder and bowel control. She must now catheterize herself multiple times daily. Her feces must be manually extracted. In addition to the emotional pain and humiliation from losing control over her bodily functions, she suffers recurring urinary tract infections, which expose her to a potentially fatal kidney disease. Mrs. Wilson is allergic to commonly prescribed medications, including sulfa and penicillin, and her chronic use of antibiotics to fight infections has caused resistance to other drugs.

Mrs. Wilson also suffers severe bruising, which takes months to heal due to diminished circulation in her lower body. Her feet swell and are susceptible to cracking and bleeding. The constant grinding of her shoulder joints from wheeling her wheelchair has caused shoulder problems, which will worsen over time. She suffers disfigurement, with one leg smaller than the other and large surgical scars across her back.

2. Mental and emotional injuries

Before the accident, Mrs. Wilson was an active, athletic, outdoors woman, with a black belt in martial arts. She often camped and hiked with her family, backpacked with Girl and Boy Scouts, helped with the San Diego Tracking Team, and did projects at Mission Trails Regional Park. She and her husband took dancing lessons, traveled and took walks.

She no longer can engage in any of the active lifestyle she once enjoyed, including swimming, skiing, snowboarding, dancing, backpacking and walking. Mrs. Wilson was finishing her masters degree in education and was about to start a second career as a teacher. These plans also have been indefinitely delayed and it is unclear whether they are now possible.

Mrs. Wilson is unable to visit all the rooms in her home — including her own bedroom — because they are inaccessible to her. She and Mr. Wilson must sleep in their laundry room.

She has...

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